Suetonius, Nero’s Dreams, and Biographical Memory

As noted in my previous post, I’m back at UC Irvine and we are in the first few weeks of the Fall quarter (the UC calendar starts insanely late in the year). I’d like to get back into blogging again, after taking a hiatus from writing on Κέλσος, and today I was struck by some inspiration for a new essay. I’m not quite sure yet how frequently I’ll be writing again (I have a lot of health and academic considerations to place first), but I thought that today would be a good place to get started.

Several years ago, back in Spring 2011, I took a graduate course taught by prominent Classics scholar Marilyn Skinner on ancient biography and Suetonius’ Life of Nero. One of the most interesting sections of the biography is a series of Nero’s dreams that Suetonius describes (chapter 46), prior to his downfall as a Roman emperor:

“Although he had never before been in the habit of dreaming, after he had killed his mother it seemed to him that he was steering a ship in his sleep and that the helm was wrenched from his hands; that he was dragged by his wife Octavia into thickest darkness, and that he was now covered with a swarm of winged ants, and now was surrounded by the statues of the nations which had been dedicated in Pompey’s theatre and stopped in his tracks. A Spanish steed of which he was very fond was changed into the form of an ape in the hinder parts of its body, and its head, which alone remained unaltered, gave forth tuneful neighs.”

There is a lot to unpack here, and I think the process of doing so will reveal how the preservation of memory was not always such a reliable process, even in historiographical biographies. For historical-critical purposes, I will also be drawing some comparisons between Nero’s dreams and those of Jesus’ father Joseph in Matthew 2:13 and 2:19-20, in which he is warned to take Jesus and flee to Egypt.

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Posted in Ancient Biography, Classics, Dissertation, Exegesis, Historical Jesus, History, Literary Theory, Religious Studies, Weird Stuff from Antiquity | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Review of the Anti-Abortion Movie “Unplanned” (2019)

So, I’m heading back to school this Fall quarter, after a year-long leave of absence, and I am hoping to get active again with posting on this blog. Right now I have a lot to do, with moving into my new apartment, but I thought I would share a review that I wrote of the anti-abortion movie Unplanned (2019), which came out earlier this year.

I originally posted my review on Quora back in April, and was complimented by anti-abortion advocates for my fair tone and charitable analysis. Although I don’t write about abortion often here (though I did have a discussion with Ray Comfort on the topic some years ago), I figured that posting my review would offer some substantive content to mull over, when it comes to the current cultural issues facing the United States.

Below is my review. I hope that readers here find it to be thought-provoking!


About a week ago I had a chance to watch the recent anti-abortion movie Unplanned. Admittedly, since I cannot (in good conscience) financially support the producers of the film, I resorted to downloading a pirated copy online. Nonetheless, I did watch the movie with two friends of mine, who had previously not heard of it. Unplanned appeared on my own personal radar, after I saw a number of anti-abortion advocates promote the movie on my Facebook feed. Although I did not pay to see Unplanned in theaters, perhaps they can still take a certain solace in me increasing the film’s viewership (even if off the record, since I didn’t want to increase its turn out at the box office).

Unplanned is produced by the makers of God’s Not Dead, which did not initially give me high expectations for the quality of the film. Nevertheless, I was delightfully surprised to find that Unplanned is actually a decent bit better than its predecessor. One of the major problems with God’s Not Dead was the uneven acting. Some characters were performed alright, but a lot of the acting in the film was B-rate and made the presentation feel choppy. I wouldn’t say that the acting in Unplanned is especially good, but the main actress (Ashley Bratcher) gives a compelling performance, while tracing the journey of the central protagonist (Abby Johnson) on her career from being a Planned Parenthood volunteer, and then clinic director, to ultimately coming out as an advocate against the organization.

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Posted in Law, Miscellaneous, Musings, Philosophy, Reviews | Leave a comment

The Rationalization Hypothesis: Is a Vision of Jesus Necessary for the Rise of the Resurrection Belief?

[Below is a guest article written by Kris Komarnitsky, author of Doubting Jesus’  Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?. I have reviewed Kris’ book previously on this blog (see here), and so I am glad that he asked me to also post his article here.]

Thanks for the intro Matt. Although the bereavement vision hypothesis is widely regarded as a plausible naturalistic explanation for the rise of the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead, I have never quite found this hypothesis completely convincing. My article below draws on social psychology to propose what I believe is a better, or at least significantly complementary, explanation for the rise of the resurrection belief, followed by a critique of the bereavement vision hypothesis. To be up front, I attempted to publish this article in a peer review journal, but the reviewer found it too speculative and the use of biblical texts and ancient Jewish literature too secondary for their purview. I respect the judgment of this journal even though I found their criteria overly restrictive, and I was encouraged by the lack of technical objections. The origin of the resurrection belief is a captivating historical puzzle and the lack of a satisfying answer motivated my inquiry into this topic. Ironically, the lack of a satisfying answer for the rise of the resurrection belief subjected me to the same basic cognitive process that I will suggest led to the resurrection belief. This cognitive process affects all of us, more than I think we are usually aware of. I hope readers find my article useful. – Kris Komarnitsky (KomarKris@gmail.com)

The article below is also available as a pdf.

Introduction

The conviction that Jesus was raised from the dead is found in the earliest evidence of Christian origins and appears to have come about almost immediately after Jesus’ death.[1] How does one account for the rise of this extraordinary belief if the later Gospel accounts of a discovered empty tomb and corporeal post-mortem appearances of Jesus are legends, as many scholars believe is the case?

One popular answer to this question is that the resurrection belief came about as an inference from an unconsciously generated and cognitive dissonance reducing bereavement vision of Jesus, described by one proponent of the vision hypothesis as “an auditory and visual experience of Jesus alive and in heavenly glory.”[2] The vision hypothesis is supported by the fact that the Gospels often connect seeing Jesus with causing belief in Jesus’ resurrection, so a historically causal connection between the two seems natural. However, the earliest statements of Jesus’ appearances (1 Cor. 15.5-7) actually do not state any causal connection between the appearances of Jesus and belief in Jesus’ resurrection; they only state that Jesus appeared. Additionally, the Gospel appearance traditions are trying to bolster belief in Jesus’ resurrection many years or decades after Jesus’ death, so they may simply be part of a legendary trajectory that is trying to ground the initial resurrection belief in hard evidence for apologetic purposes, just like the discovered empty tomb tradition does. If so, then it is possible that the resurrection belief came first, and then the visions of Jesus followed. Allowing for this possibility, this article attempts to improve on an already developed but I believe undervalued explanation for the rise of the resurrection belief that draws on the extraordinary human phenomenon of cognitive-dissonance-induced rationalization.

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Posted in Guest Blogs, Resurrection | 18 Comments

Time for an Update

38665081_10107735075768052_8311195960428462080_nI’ve been away from the blog for a couple months, so I’ve decided to give an update on what I’m doing. As previously noted, I am currently on a medical leave of absence from school. Recently I have been heavily focused on improving my health, while thinking about the direction I want to take my career. I’m not going to lie, over the years managing this blog has often tired me out. There is a lot of antagonism within the field of Biblical Studies. It provides an interesting contrast with the field of Classical Studies, where there tends to be less controversy and intensity between different viewpoints. I feel that focusing too much on the debating and critiquing side of scholarship has sometimes sapped my creative energy.

I am still unequivocally opposed to the way organized religion has penetrated academia. I have no problem with Christian scholars working on the subject of ancient history, but I don’t think there should be accredited academic institutions (with doctrinal statements) designed to favor one particular religion (or atheism, for that matter). It fundamentally differs from what I view as the proper role of a university, and I hope to be active in addressing that throughout my career.

But, there is also a bigger world out there, and I want to feel free to explore it. There is so much acrimony (on both sides) in online discourse about the historical Jesus, the Bible, etc. I realize that this is due to the wider controversy and polarization of thought that surrounds these matters, but it can also be very tiring. When I started out studying Classics, I felt like I was having a lot more fun and passion for what I was doing. But all the antagonism in Biblical Studies has had the unfortunate effect of making my scholarship feel like a chore. I want to fix that, because it’s not how I want my career to feel throughout the coming decades.

Since I am doing a lot of internal reflection right now, I want to let my readers know that my blog posts will probably be sporadic over the next several months. I don’t want to feel like I am obligated to write here. I should do so out of passion and interest. For this reason, if you are a patron on my Patreon account, feel free to unsubscribe, since this blog will be less active. I’m going to keep the account open, should I ever decide to start posting more again, and also for people who simply want to be patrons of my academic work outside the blog.

In terms of upcoming material, I have a guest article that I will be posting soon, written by Kris Komarnitsky (author of Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?). Other than that, we’ll just see how I’m doing.

I hope that this announcement doesn’t come as a disappointment to certain readers. I have to take care of myself and make sure that I am happy with my work. As such, I’ll be utilizing my leave of absence to deeply consider the future direction I want to take in academia. Hopefully what I’ve written makes sense, and apologies if it seemed like a long confessional (haha).

Take care,

Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Announcements | 13 Comments

Did the Author of Matthew Intend to Imply that the Disciple Matthew Was the Brother of James son of Alphaeus?

In doing research on the Gospel of Matthew the other day, I noticed a peculiarity in the Matthew’s redaction of the Gospel of Mark. The process started when I was looking into the name change between “Levi” son of Alphaeus (Mk. 2:13-17) and “Matthew” (Mt. 9:9-13) between the two gospels. The question I was searching for was: “What would motivate the author of Matthew to identify the role of Levi with the disciple Matthew?”

“Matthew” is first mentioned in Mark among the list of twelve disciples in 3:16-19. There, no indication is given that this individual is the same “Levi” mentioned in Mk. 2:13-17. This is a curious omission, since the author of Mark specifies elsewhere when the same individual was known by two names. In the same list of disciples, he clarifies that “Simon” was also known as “Peter” at 3:16 (which is a point also reinforced at 14:37). The former of these identifications help to bridge the reader between the Simon who first appears in 1:16, and the character Peter who first appears solely by that name in Mk. 5:37. I call this a bridge, because the names “Simon” and “Peter” switch, right after the two figures are connected in the list of the twelve at 3:16-19.

But no such identification is provided in Mark to connect “Levi” with “Matthew.” So where did the Gospel of Matthew get the idea to connect the two? To answer this, I think there are a few major clues:

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Posted in Exegesis | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Authorial Third Person Narration–in Thucydides, Josephus, Xenophon, and Caesar–Versus the Gospel of Matthew

One of the issues that pops up frequently, when discussing the authorial anonymity of the Gospel of Matthew, is how a number of Classical authors refer to themselves in the third person, when narrating historical events in which they themselves had taken part. This point is raised, due to the fact that the disciple Matthew is mentioned in the gospel attributed to him (Mt. 9:9-13), but is only described in the third person, rather than identifying himself in the first person as the author of the text.

It is claimed that this omission should not count against the traditional authorial attribution of Matthew, since authors like Thucydides, Josephus, Xenophon, and Julius Caesar likewise describe themselves in the third person within their own narratives, without switching to the first person when they appear. Some additional nuance needs to be incorporated to address this point, however, since the authorial use of the third person in these Classical authors differs in a number of ways from how the disciple Matthew plays a role in the Gospel of Matthew.

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Posted in Classics, Exegesis, History, Literary Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Readers’ Mailbag: Should Legendary Development Have Occurred More Rapidly for Alexander the Great than Jesus?

Recently in response to my blog essay “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?: The Spectrum of Ancient Βίοι”–in which I discuss how the NT Gospels resemble the more novelistic and fabulous biographies from antiquity, such as the Alexander Romance (in contrast to more historiographical and mundane ancient biographies, such as those of Plutarch, for example)–a reader asked this question:


Thanks for this article, it’s a great read and most enjoyable. Just one thing, I am not entirely persuaded about the growth of popular biographies, at least in terms of comparing their rapid emergence with the gospels. Someone, like Alexander for example, was a widely known character, who acted out it his life on a grand stage. The rapid embellishments on such a well know character are understandable. But Jesus life was quite different, he spent his life in a back water, an unknown figure to the majority of people, and even afterwards, the same was true for a very long time. So, I think the arguments against fabulisation and extraordinary embellishments (in the gospels) have a point, because of the time scale involved. This is not to suggest that there aren’t any, and as time went on, (as the none canonical gospels show), there was a definite movement in this direction; but I am not sure that it is a good argument for implying that the gospels must be full of the fanciful .

I’d be interested to hear your response.


To provide some further context, I have compared the pace of legendary development between Alexander the Great and Jesus in this previous essay, as well as this one. Here is my response to the reader’s question:

I am actually going to turn your intuition on its head. Let’s stop and think about what it would take to turn Alexander into a fabulated hero. The historical Alexander had already accomplished many extraordinary deeds during his lifetime. He had expanded the small countries of Macedonia and Greece into conquering most of the known world. He had traveled as far as India and deep into Central Asia. He had vanquished great kings and generals. He had founded many cities and left behind a great empire (even if it fractured). And he had done all of this by his early-30’s.

What sort of embellishments needed to be fabricated about Alexander, in order to make his story more glorious? Really, not too many. Sure, you could add stuff about him meeting legendary Amazon warriors (like Achilles) during his military expeditions. You could spread rumors about his mother being impregnated by a god (like Hercules). And you could speak of journeys to the end of the world (like Odysseus). But when it’s all said and done, the real Alexander the Great was already a legend in his own right.

Now let’s turn to Jesus. If you wanted to spread stories about Jesus being the Messiah, what kind of Messiah would he make if he was nothing but an obscure, itinerant peasant, who made little impact on the known world during his lifetime? Jesus was never recognized by the vast majority of his contemporary Judeans as their king. He never overthrew the yoke of Roman oppression. He never ushered in any sort of cosmic judgement or transformation while he was alive. Who wants to hear about a Messiah who was little more than a vagabond wandering around giving sermons?

So, if you want to dress Jesus up as a Messiah, you actually have far more work to do. You would need to spread stories about him ascending to heaven (like Elijah). Stories about him walking on water (even more remarkable than Moses merely parting water). Stories about him multiplying even more bread than Elisha had. Stories about him raising the dead and performing nature miracles (like both Elijah and Elisha). And, if Jesus had not ushered in cosmic judgement during his lifetime, then you would need to speak of celestial visions foretelling how he would do so in the future (such as what John of Patmos witnessed).

Finally, since Jesus had suffered an embarrassing execution on the cross, you would need to revise that blemish on his track record, by having him experience an extraordinary reversal of fate. Perhaps, say, by rising from the dead afterward…

So, I actually think that someone like Jesus would have far more fabulation occur in his popular biography. Note, both Alexander and Jesus had their legends take shape around mimetic models. Alexander was modeled on figures such as Hercules, Achilles, and Odysseus. Jesus was modeled on figures such as Moses, Elijah, and Elisha. But Jesus’ story needed far more miracles and wonder-working in it, in order to raise him from an obscure peasant to someone far more remarkable. Alexander didn’t need that. He already was remarkable. It didn’t take as much myth-making to impress people with Alexander’s story. But who wants a King of the Jews and Messiah that does nothing but wander around giving sermons and speaking in parables? You need to add miracles, thunder, and furry to the story, in order to get people to follow Jesus.

A final note is that fabulation also did seem to take place more slowly with Alexander than Jesus. Our earliest versions of the Alexander Romance date to centuries after his death. Scholars such as Richard Stoneman think that they may be based on an earlier archetype, dating to only a couple generations after Alexander’s lifetime, but we can’t be sure. In contrast, we know that none of the Gospels could have been written any later than a century after Jesus’ death.

And I think there are reasons why the Gospels needed to be written sooner. To get Christianity off the ground, you needed to have extraordinary tales about Jesus circulated quite early. Otherwise both Jesus and Christianity would have faded into obscurity. Alexander, in contrast, would have remained quite famous for centuries, with no help from the Alexander Romance being needed to preserve his memory and legend. So, as I said at the beginning, counter-intuition may be the answer to your question.

I think answering this question shaped into a nice post on its own, and so I’ve posted it on the main page of this blog.

-Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Ancient Biography, Ancient Novel, Classics, Historical Jesus, History, Mailbag, Miracles | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments